By The Progressive on January 27, 2003
Sports media complicit in slur against Asian Americans
By Emil Guillermo

January 28, 2003

When NBA Los Angeles Lakers superstar Shaquille O'Neal said, "Tell Yao Ming: Ching-chong-yang-wah-so," he claimed it was a joke.

Asian Americans aren't laughing.

O'Neal uttered the words last June on Fox Sports Net's "Best Damned Talk Show, Period" in reference to the Houston Rockets' new center (and recent Chinese immigrant), Yao Ming.

The fact that no one either heard or complained about it then shows how acceptable Asian slurs are in our society. So it was no surprise to hear "The Tony Bruno Show," a nationally syndicated sports talk show, re-air the slur last December.

This time Irwin Tang, a college instructor at Austin Community College in Texas, heard it. "I couldn't believe my ears," Tang said. "And then I just felt sick."

Why was the "Bruno Show" playing Shaq's racial slur?

"Shaq's comments are racist," Evan Mandelbaum, Bruno's producer, admitted to me. "But does that make him a racist?"

Mandelbaum's casual air reflected the media's and society's general reaction. It wasn't until Tang placed an op-ed in the ethnic publication Asian Week that anyone realized the slurs were harmful.

NBA commissioner David Stern was quick to say the comments were "insensitive," but not "intentionally mean-spirited."

Shaq himself issued a highly qualified apology. "If I offended anybody, I apologize," O'Neal told reporters. "To say I'm racist against Asians is crazy. I'm an idiot prankster. I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke. Seventy percent thought it was funny."

That's a problem. Most of the media gave Shaq a "get out of jail free" card on this one.

Tom Tolbert, a former NBA benchwarmer who is now a color analyst for ESPN, told a national audience that Shaq was just trying to be funny. "I think we all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a little more," said Tolbert.

The media saw racial slurs against Asian Americans as worthy of debate. For instance, instead of an outright denunciation of Shaq's slur, ESPN sought balance as if racism could have a positive side. Would they invite the Klan to debate a fried chicken remark in reference to black Americans? No. ESPN and other media seem to understand black vs. white racism. They don't get racism against Asians.

"(Shaq's comments) feed a fire of prejudice," said Phil Ting, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus based in San Francisco. "It creates an environment where Asian Americans are made to feel uncomfortable and defensive, and that's exactly the intent of many hate crimes."

The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium has put the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States at between 400 to 500 a year. In the three months following Sept. 11, the organization documented nearly 250 cases alone, including two murders.

And in Washington state, federal authorities continue to hold a man in connection with a plot to kill Gov. Gary Locke. The man allegedly didn't approve of Locke's Chinese heritage.

Shaq's unpunished comments send the wrong message. "It gives license, a green light to others that says that kind of action is acceptable," said Diane Chin of Chinese for Affirmative Action, also based in San Francisco.

The Organization of Chinese Americans has now joined the fight for a more formal apology. An opportunity could arise if Shaq is named as Yao Ming's back-up in the upcoming NBA All-Star game.

But there may need to be more than one apology before the end of Yao's rookie season. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson was asked last week if O'Neal minded being out-voted for the game and playing second string to Yao. "I don't think it bothers him in the least," Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. "He understands fully the NBA has put out four forms of (All-Star ballots in) Mandarin, Cantonese, Pekingese and also Hong Kong-ese."

Only Mandarin and Cantonese are languages. People in Hong Kong can speak either. But Peking is now known as Beijing, and "Pekingese" (or rather Pekinese) is a term that usually describes a breed of dog.

Such is the level of ignorance about Asians and Asian Americans in this country. It's almost laughable. Almost.

Emil Guillermo is a columnist for Asian Week and Sfgate.com. His book, "Amok," won an American Book Award (Monkey Tales Press/Asian Week Books, 1999). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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